What a year at the movies! La La Land inspires us to sing and dance while Moonlight offers a fresh sense of purpose and Manchester by the Sea expresses what family can mean. And those are only three of the top nominees. Who will win on Oscar night, Feb. 26? Here are my favorites.
Best Picture: La La Land
Every time a musical seriously competes for the top Oscar, a debate over cinema substance begins. Many serious movie fans ask, “How can the Academy honor something so light over films so meaningful?” The answer is never easy. La La Land designs and delivers its own magical world where people use song and dance to express what their hearts feel. Director Damien Chazelle salutes musicals of the past as he creates a movie that feels right for today. And he reminds us why we let musicals take us away on their magic carpets. La La Land may not be the most substantive movie of 2016 but it sure feels good. Again and again.
Best Actor: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
While he may lose to Denzel Washington – who may win for the force of his performance in Fences as well as his drive to make the film – the year’s acting honors go to the soft-spoken Casey Affleck who breaks our hearts as a man trying to penetrate his layers of grief. In Manchester, Affleck lives a predictable life as a well-intentioned husband, father, brother, uncle and friend until guilt prevents him from looking forward. The actor is brave, precise and original. And I can’t get his performance out of my head.
Best Actress: Isabelle Hupert, Elle
Yes, Emma Stone is favored to win. And, yes, Oscar loves to honor young actresses. But 63-year-old Isabelle Huppert – known as the Meryl Streep of France – rules the screen in this devilish drama about a woman who responds with mystery to the most personal of attacks. Relying on her ability to communicate so much with glance and expression, Huppert makes us believe in the woman’s success as well as her vulnerability, her drive as well as her fears. The actress balances the lady’s priorities in a brave portrayal that lives for days after the film ends.
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
He only appears in the first third of Barry Jenkins’ remarkable film, and the impact of his performance relies as much on his eyes as on his voice. Mahershala Ali’s portrayal of a drug dealer is so strong that, long after leaving the theater, we remember the detail of each glance, the nuance of every reading. Ali is the heart of a movie that dares to examine how we can be enlightened by relationships we create and environments we try to escape. Along with solid work in this year’s Hidden Figures, Ali reminds us how good acting creates lasting impressions.
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis, Fences
That she has waited so long to win an Oscar is an Academy mystery. But other people got in the way. When Viola Davis was first nominated for Doubt, Penelope Cruz won as Best Supporting Actress and, the year Davis was the favorite to win for The Help, a lady named Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for The Iron Lady. But no one will stop Davis this year. Her brilliant recreation of her Tony-winning stage role in Fences confirms why we will watch her do anything. Davis laughs, cries, touches, screams and comforts. And she makes us believe every moment.
Best Director: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Two years after thrilling film fans with Whiplash – and winning an Oscar nomination for its screenplay – Chazelle pulls off a movie miracle by reinventing the musical. And he dares to launch this journey with an opening sequence that captivates, excites and makes us want more. Who could imagine a crowded Los Angeles freeway as the backdrop for the most thrilling opening number since Julie Andrews discovered the hills were alive? From the moment a first honk initiates the fun, Chazelle’s opener reveals everything we need to know about his movie. And he makes us want to start tapping our toes.
Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan’s exploration of death, family, grief and redemption brings a playwright’s sensibility to the screen. Never does Lonergan try to simplify what he intends in order to cater to an audience he can’t see. Instead he creates complex characters, places them in challenging situations, and simply lets them breathe.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
From a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, a former theater professor at the University of Miami, Barry Jenkins creates a meaningful journey into the ways we make differences in others people’s lives. Without letting the message overwhelm the story, or sentiment interrupt the rhythm, Jenkins makes us feel we are in the moment with special people.
Best Foreign Language Film: Toni Erdmann
While all contenders in this category impress, the rich humor of Toni Erdmann reaches beyond what we often see in this category. Running nearly three hours, most of them filled with laughter, this German film comments on how people live as it celebrates the humanity they share. And it never stops making us laugh.
Best Animated Feature Film: Zootopia
While animated movies risk becoming too familiar – from relying too much on popular formula – this look at social norms, controversial conspiracy and police behavior makes us think as it entertains. By reaching beyond the conventions of new-age animation, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore push the boundaries of content and visuals.
Best Documentary Feature: 13th
In a category filled with thrilling work – and several worthy candidates left without nominations – this moving tribute to the challenges of race in America reaches beyond the sensational to focus on what each of us can do to make a difference in a complex world.
Best Cinematography: La La Land
The film’s exquisite look helps director Damien Chazelle achieve his ambition to reinvent the movie musical. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren creates a lush view of Los Angeles that, while based in reality, offers a magical sheen that lets us know we are in for something special.
Best Costume Design: La La Land
For dance to work on film, the costumes must flow with the movement to create visual patterns that work with the music. Thanks to Mary Zophres, the rich experience of La La Land includes every thread that each character wears. Yes, the costumes sing and dance.
Best Film Editing: La La Land
Every musical relies on the film editor to establish pace and rhythm. As if creating a piece of music for La La Land, editor Tom Cross deliberately abbreviates and extends shots and sequences and shots to bring Damien Chazelle’s vision to life.
Best Original Score: La La Land
No surprise, the music of La La Land is a key feature. Just as in Whiplash, also directed by Damien Chazelle, composer Jason Hurwitz creates a sound that articulates the director’s point of view as well as expresses what the characters feel.
Best Original Song: City of Stars from La La Land
No surprise, the song of the film is the movie song of the year. The melody establishes the mood of the piece, the heart of the character and the moral of the tale. And its melody is one of those that, once heard, is difficult to forget.
Best Makeup and Hair: Star Trek Beyond
While we might think we have seen everything in these films – and there’s little opportunity for surprise – the visual impact of the work by Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo makes us take a second look.
Best Production Design: La La Land
It’s no surprise this visual thrill ride will dominate the technical awards. Its depiction of a musical fantasy is so specific in detail yet epic in scope that the design immediately transports us to a new world. Never do we believe we are in Kansas, Toto.
Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Yes, Mel Gibson’s film is as dazzling to listen to as to watch, with a collection of sounds that continually surprises. The movie becomes a symphony of audio elements that contributes to the sense of desperation it explores and humanity it celebrates.
Best Sound Mixing: La La Land
The second sound category honors the creation of non-dialogue and non-music elements to enhance a film’s sound. The Academy should reward the film that uses sound most effectively to tell its story. That will again be La La Land, even exquisite when it doesn’t sing.
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book
We become so familiar with what a computer can do on screen that we can too easily forget that it takes creativity to decide where the software should focus. This remake of the Disney animated classic creates a visual adventure that makes us forget the source material.
Enjoy the Oscars on February 26!